Leading by Example: Around the House
I am trying to get into the habit of not complaining and to instead focus on solving the problem at hand, the source of my own discontent. Complaints and grumbles seem to stay in the air and have no good purpose. Staying positively focused feels far more empowering when one is faced with the daily trials and tribulations of endless housework... the dishes that seem to reappear from nowhere; the piles of dirty clothes that seem to clone themselves just when my back is turned. Dust bunnies which regenerate at what seems like lightning speed. And let's not forget the toys, which have been possessed by the spirit of Manifest Destiny. Some days, I'm pretty sure I can hear them strategizing: "We've made it this far, to the edge of the carpet. Let us go forth and populate the fertile ground of the living room, and then let us stretch out further beyond, into the forbidding orange Formica plains of the kitchen. We shall meet a terrible foe there, the one the child calls "Mama". She shall hurl us backward, but have strong hearts, we will do our best to trip her up and vex her before she banishes us from the land there."
Having a good sense of humor helps, considerably. This summer, as I spend long day after day with Kiddo, I work to be thoughtful about modeling a pleasant attitude and willingness to do things I don't particularly want to do. Let's be honest here, not every day is a shout-out success. But being mindful of what I say and do, and the messages those words and actions send, does make things easier in the long run.
At the table: This is the first area of self-restraint. I am careful not to mention foods I don't like and not to draw attention to them. Out and about, it's easy to ask for "no lettuce, no onion" on my veggie burger, but at home when Joe's eating a salad, I keep my mouth shut. Or if someone offers something I don't care for, a simple "no thanks" is all that's needed. We have made a habit, long ago, of simply saying "oh, I'm not fond of" such and such, instead of vehemently stating how much we "hate" something, or using other descriptions of dislike. We don't force Kiddo to eat anything he's not interested in trying, and we certainly try not to set an example of unwillingness, so if we don't care for it, we don't talk about how revolting we might find it, even if it is revolting. Everyone in the world eats different things, and I want my son to taste new foods without preconceived ideas.
The same can also be said about junk food. We do have our nights of eating chips in front of the tv after Kiddo is asleep, just like most couples, and we do try to make the healthier choices in front of Kiddo while he's at the table with us. If he's watching us eat junk food on a regular basis, that's going to be what he thinks grown-ups do. By serving healthy meals and smaller sweet treats within reason, and drinking lots of water, we show him what a healthy plate looks like.
Doing our Work: The act of living inside any dwelling, even the most basic, requires work. In "On the Banks of Plum Creek", Laura Ingalls Wilder recalls how Ma Ingalls swept the dirt floor of their dug-out home every day. That takes discipline, in my opinion, sweeping a dirt floor. Having a time to do the jobs required to keep the house running smoothly requires a lot of explanations to Kiddo when he asks "Why won't you play with me?" If I mope and gripe, chances are he will think these tasks are indeed onerous and boring. Instead, I try to give simple explanations: It's nice to have clean dishes or clean clothes. The kitchen looks so good when all the dirty things are washed up. We have room to play or cook now that a space in the house is clean. Making our beds makes the rooms look more comfortable; picking up our toys allows us more room to play with the ones we want to use now. We feel better in tidy rooms, and while I'm nowhere near done on making our house tidy, the progress that is made helps.
Likewise, working in the garden requires a lot of time and dedication. With the summer heat, many mornings find me watering the garden before I've had a cup of tea or breakfast. Kiddo is invited to help, and once again, the tasks are presented as helpful. The flowers look so cheerful when they are watered, the zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes and peas all need tending so that we might have good food. Keeping the weeds at bay is important, and so some of my time is spent not playing outdoors, but working to make sure our plants have a good growing season. Best of all is when we might bring the bounty indoors; grilled zucchini for dinner, a freshly pulled carrot to chomp or an arrangement of flowers to brighten up the room. Noticing the good things that come from our work brings a spiritual aspect to the nurturing work of tending the garden, or even taking care of the cat, who hasn't yet grown thumbs and can't feed himself.
You Do What I Do: Let me say that this is one of the areas in child rearing when leading by example is so important. If Kiddo needs sunblock on, I must wear some also. If he must brush his teeth, I'll often brush mine at the same time. Wearing a sun hat, even when I'd prefer not to, is something I must do so as to teach good self-care to my child. All of those aspects of good hygiene--washing one's hands, bathing, making sure our hair is combed and untangled--all this must be modeled by myself and my husband if our son is to develop good habits on his own.
This modeling also extends to other aspects of life. Returning library books in a timely manner shows good stewardship and that we are willing to take our turns and live by another's rules. Limiting my own screen time shows my son that there are more important, better things to do during the day. Getting exercise by taking brisk walks or hikes puts a priority on moving one's body, and sitting down to read and relax daily honors the needs of the body to rest for a while. Using a quieter voice in the common spaces or waiting for a conversation to finish instead of interrupting, being considerate when someone nearby is on the telephone shows children that they are part of a world bigger than just themselves and their own desires or agenda. Others around us need special considerations from time to time; it's not all about us.
At the end of the day... bedtime is a time for restful talk, reading books and relaxing before sleep. Our routine starts with the usual self-care tasks--changing into pajamas so the clothes we wore all day don't dirty the sheets and bed, the brushing of teeth, face washing and using the bathroom-- all these come first. Then, there are the stories, and lastly, the most important time of all, our gentle review of the day. "What did you like doing today?" I always ask Kiddo, and he never answers directly, but always turns the question back to me "What did yooooou like doing today, Mama?" And so a litany of the days activities begin, with one exception: I don't focus on the harder spots, unless he brings them up himself. Instead, it might go like this:
"Well, PeaPod, I liked watering the garden with you this morning. I liked picking peas with you, and bringing in some flowers. I liked when we walked to the store and stopped to look at the ladybugs on that leaf. I liked when you took a bath and how you made your dinosaurs ride in that plastic tub for their boat. I liked when I did the dishes and you worked next to me in the bubbles while I did the washing up in the other sink. And I liked how you got your pajamas on the right way, the first time I asked, and that you picked a really great book for story time, because I love that one too. And I love you."
Never underestimate the positive power of this sort of reflection. Even when the day is rough and we've had to use a lot of discipline or do a lot of problem-solving, right before bed is the time when he might bring those hard moments up, but not me. I'd prefer us to end the day feeling closer to each other, for him to feel secure in my love and esteem for him. Even in the midst of the daily challenges and small failures, he is still lovable, and that my first thoughts to him are not of his mistakes, but of moments he can feel proud of himself in. I believe that as long as we are giving guidance and addressing the challenges and behavioral issues 'in the moment', that the end-of-the-day positive feedback isn't a whitewash, but something that conveys trust. I know who Kiddo really is, and acknowledge who he's capable of being, and he falls to sleep, knowing he has the power to make a positive impact on our lives as a family. Loving him just for being there with me.
This has a trickle-down effect, too, for when I am ready to turn out my own light, I might be exhausted, but satisfied that we had some good moments and that tomorrow holds more opportunities to do it all over again. Some of those tasks will make me sigh, but the day will have purpose and meaning, and the next night offers up again that quiet, loving space between Kiddo and I, where we have peace with each other. It makes leading by example worth so much more than just showing him how to do what I want him to do, because I am also living the kind of life which I value for him. We mothers often put ourselves last. Leading by example put us in a loving parallel place, where we value and care for ourselves as we do our child. The goodness of our positive actions goes beyond the teaching of our youngsters, and carries over to the good which is done in our own hearts and lives.